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It Seems To Me . . .

Is U.S. search for new coach too hasty?

By Robert Wagman
Special to SoccerTimes

(Wednesday, August 12, 1998) -- It Seems To Me . . . that the search for a new national team coach may be moving too quickly.

United States Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg continues to pledge that the U.S. will have signed a new coach by the time he steps down on August 22. While Rothenberg would never publicly say this, the search is moving forward with such considerable pace because he probably does not trust either of his potential successors to spend the kind of money it is going to take to sign a really experienced and successful international coach, or for that matter, that either Bob Contiguglia or Larry Monaco will make the hiring of a new coach a major priority right now.

What should be central to this process, and what seems completely lacking, is any search for a consensus as to why the U.S. failed so completely in France. The first question that should be settled is the absolutely basic one of whether the U.S. program as a whole failed, or was it Steve Sampson personally who failed so utterly.

This is the central question. If Sampson was the problem than this might mitigate towards certain choices in a new coach. If, however, the problem is the lack of depth and ability in the player pool, the answer must lie elsewhere.

Many in the U.S. camp want to place the blame on Sampson. That is easier than blaming the whole system, or blaming themselves. But if it was Sampson's fault, on what level did he fail? Was it his lack of "international experience," as some charge, even though Sampson has more international experience than any other American coach? If this is the answer, it would suggest the hiring of a big name international coach.

Was Sampson's failure, as some of his own players charge, the result of his coaching experience being mainly at the college level so he had no real feel for dealing with professionals? If that is the case, than D.C. United's Bruce Arena might be the answer because he has professional club experience, knows the American players and MLS and it does not matter that his international experience is limited to his Olympic experience.

Was the U.S. failure the result of tactical blunders in France, the reliance on the now much-maligned 3-6-1 scheme? Did Sampson not get the most out of his players, or as many of his own players believe, did he play favorites starting players who were ill-suited for the rolls they were given while benching others who could have contributed? If these were the reasons, than a better, more experienced and more objective coach might make a difference.

But in the final analysis, if the root cause of the U.S. problems in France was simply the lack of talent on the U.S. side, than no matter who is coaching the result will be little different. If the problem is lack of talent, then millions spent on the world's best coach, might be better spent on player development.

Enough time has passed that we can now view the three loses in France with some degree of detachment. A look at the video tape offers several suggestions. Sampson's 3-6-1 depended greatly on three players: Tom Dooley organizing the defense, Claudio Reyna orchestrating the offense and Eric Wynalda scoring goals or at least being the kind of offensive threat that would have created opening for others coming out of the midfield.

Without going into it too deeply, all three let Sampson down badly. It might well be that the years simply caught up with Dooley, that Wynalda had really not recovered from his injury-marred year, and that Reyna -- as his German coach suggested -- was simply badly miscast.

This opens the argument as to whether Sampson had the right people on the field, or available in a substitute role. It reopens the whole John Harkes-Roy Lassiter question. Did Sampson fail finally because of his own stubbornness?

Maybe U.S. Soccer should have some consensus on these questions before committing millions of dollars to a new coach.


Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for ScrippsHoward for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at MobileWag@aol.com.